Deshawn’s mother, Ann, was 14 years old when she became pregnant with him. At the time of his birth, she was in and out of foster care and was not able to raise him. Deshawn considered his paternal grandmother, Yvonne, his real mother. She was the only constant caregiver in his life. Deshawn’s father left to enlist into the Navy when Deshawn was 5 years old and has only seen him once a year since then. His grandmother took good care of him and she was all Deshawn knew until he was eight years old and his biological mother Ann asked to begin raising him. This change was very traumatic for Deshawn because of his mother’s instability and because he missed his grandmother.
As he grew, Deshawn continued to experience symptoms from this trauma, as well as experiencing new adverse childhood experiences such as abuse, violence in his neighborhood, poverty, and watching his mother struggle severely to regulate her emotions. He needed mental health services and support such as counseling, mentors, social support and skills to help him cope with all that he was experiencing at such a young age but he did not receive any.
His mother needed mental health services herself. She had been abused while growing up in and out of foster care and was trying to raise her son as a single parent. They lived on a salary under $15,000 a year. When living in survival mode, unable to afford basic needs, mental health treatment is often considered an inaccessible luxury. For many minorities who do have the time and means, it may be considered weak to ask for help. There is a stigma placed on mental health treatment, so many suffer in silence. The church can play an important role to help bridge the gap between suffering in silence and seeking mental health services, making sure people know that it’s ok to ask for help.
A Matter of Faith
Christians are called to have the mind of Christ, a mind of humility that considers others more than themselves (Philippians 2:5). In biblical accounts, Jesus models what each person who is counted out, ostracized, or not included really needs: compassion, healing, acceptance and love. Congregations could be part of the support that people with mental health struggles and disabilities need in this 21st century - to help people like Deshawn. In the Gospel of Matthew 15:30-31, Jesus is the source of healing for many types of disabilities and injuries. The text says great crowds came to him and Jesus healed them all. No one was excluded. They all had access to His help.
Jesus didn’t ask for money first. He did not ask if they qualified for Medicaid, if they were from his culture, or if they were joining his church. He just healed them. The community banded together and provided transportation for people to reach Jesus. As the body of Christ, we are called to abandon privilege and power, expressing humility to help those who are disadvantaged and in need. This was Jesus’ way from the start when he chose to abandon his equality with God to become a humble servant. Philippians 2:6-8 says, “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus, who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death even death on a cross!”
The Least of These
Jesus teaches about connection to those who are in the margins of society and how he gives healing to all people who could never have access to it before. Mathew 25:40 says, “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” The word “least” in the Greek means less than the least, having small or little influence, a passive voice with limited ability. Jesus’ focus in this text is on the people who need the most help, those who are the most disadvantaged. Jesus calls them, “my brothers and sisters,” which indicates a close relationship with him.
Where Can Churches Start?
Churches can begin to address the issue of better access to mental health services by having a referral system set up to help people access what they need. We can invite mental health professionals, using Mental Health First Aid as a model, to come to our churches and educate us about mental health, mental illness and how to help others access treatment. We can attend trainings on Cultural Competency so that we are more culturally responsive and sensitive to the unique needs of our diverse community. We can begin to bridge the gap between mental health and the church by building mental health treatment services and programs into the church infrastructure and including mental health staff on boards and in leadership discussions. We can create sharing spaces for people to tell their story of mental health struggles so that stigma is broken and those telling the stories feel heard and empowered. As a church, we must take action so that people who are considered on the margins of society – the “least of these,” our brothers and sisters - have full access to mental health services and the support of the church throughout their healing process. It’s time to care for the holistic person; mind, body and spirit.
To learn more about the intersection of race and mental health, here are a couple of helpful links:
Darial Sterling is the Cultural and Linguistic Competency Coordinator (CLC) for The SOURCE, Elkhart County's System of Care. Darial collaborates with service providers, leaders and stakeholders to help put systems and programs in place to reduce disparities among minority youth who struggle with mental and/or behavioral health challenges. Darial has B.A. in Psychology and has completed some graduate coursework in Counseling from Liberty University. Darial is also a minister at New Vision of Life Church in Elkhart, Indiana, under the leadership of Pastor Marvin Pace.
With over 12 years of experience in mental health care and advocacy in community, municipal, and state delivery systems and over 8 years of experience as a minister, Darial brings a unique set of skills to help build equitable and culturally responsive dynamics into infrastructures.